How a burial ground of Dalits in this Gujarat village turns into a battle ground | Latest News India - Hindustan Times

How a burial ground of Dalits in this Gujarat village turns into a battle ground

Aug 30, 2023 06:29 PM IST

The Dalit community says they face stiff resistance from the upper caste people to conduc last rites at the burial ground

The Dalod village in Gujarat’s Ahmedabad district has a seven-hectare burial ground for Dalits allocated by the local administration. However, the Dalits living in the village say that it occasionally turns into a battle ground when a Dalit person dies as the community faces stiff resistance from the upper caste people to conduct their last rites.

Police have set up a temporary police post in Dalod village in Gujarat’s Ahmedabad district. (HT Photo)
Police have set up a temporary police post in Dalod village in Gujarat’s Ahmedabad district. (HT Photo)

On June 23, when a villager named Manganbhai Gohil, who was in his fifties, passed away, and his body was being taken to the new site for burial, members of the Patidar community intervened. They attempted to prevent the burial from taking place, leading to a tense and heated argument that lasted for about two hours. After the intervention of the police, Gohil was finally laid to rest at the designated site.

However, the next day, a group of about 200-300 people attacked the house of Kishen Sendhav, 30, a farmer, who is also the deputy sarpanch of the village. He escaped unhurt but his nephew, sister and sister-in-law received injuries. Three complaints were registered at Mandal police station in this regard. Sendhav lodged a complaint against the crowd, accusing them of violence.

Another case was filed by the government ambulance service, alleging an attack on government property and assault on a government official while on duty.

A Patidar woman also filed a complaint of physical harassment against Sendhav and eight other villagers from the Dalit community.

Police later established a temporary police post in the vicinity where the Dalit community resides. Laxmanbhai Solanki, a constable at Mandal police station, said that their continuous presence in the area since June 24 has been dedicated to ensuring the safety and security of the Dalit community.

However, on July 14, the death of 80-year-old Trikambhai Gohil again sparked tension in the area. The Dalit community members, to which Gohil belonged, wrote to the district collector, stating that they will leave the deceased at their office if the administration could not guarantee their protection while carrying out the final rites.

Later in the day, Gohil was laid to rest amid police protection after a compromise between Dalits and the upper caste Patidars over the burial site.

The Dalod village, situated about 70 kms away from the state Capital, is divided into two parts by a road which runs between the upper caste and lower caste villagers. The village has a population of 5,000 with 1,500 Patels or Patidars and 1,000 Thakors and 1,000 Dalits, among others.

The village has three caste-based crematoriums. For several years, the Dalits were using an open space in the outskirts of the village to bury the dead.

Ratnaben Gohil, 65, an elected member of the Dalod gram panchayat, said she raised the issue about the need for a new crematorium at the local village level meeting in January this year.

“The burial place that we once used was a village road in the past. Unfortunately, it has now dwindled into a tiny area, serving as a sewage disposal site. During the monsoon season, the place gets water-logged, transforming into a muddy terrain, leaving very limited space to move around,” Gohil said.

The gram panchayat soon passed a resolution allocating 7-hectare barren land for the Dalits to carry out their last rites, she added.

However, their hopes for a smooth implementation were met with resistance and protests from the upper caste Patidars.

Sendhav said members of the upper caste community fenced the area with barbed wires and blocked the road leading to theburial ground. The panchayat served three notices to members of the Patidar community behind this and finally ordered removal of the wires, he added.

The Dalit community conducted their final rites at the newly allocated site for a period of approximately 5-6 months.

Meanwhile, officials have also raised concerns regarding the legality of using the land for burial purposes. They pointed out that the designated area for the burial site encompassed a portion of what was once a village waterbody, which brought into question the legitimacy of its usage for funeral rites.

Gohil said that now the government has identified a completely new site – a third one, and villagers will bury the dead only in the protection of police officials.

Assistant collector of Viramgam, Kanchan, who only uses her first name, admitted that concerns have arisen between the Dalits and members from another caste regarding the burial practices for the deceased. “We have received an application from the Dalit community expressing their need for a dedicated crematorium space, and are processing it,” she said.

Superintendent of police (SP), Ahmedabad (rural), Amit Vasava, blamed “village politics” and said that the burial ground issue incidentally came into play. “Within the village, three communities mainly hold dominance. The Sarpanch position is held by a representative from the Bharwad (OBC) community, while the Deputy Sarpanch hails from the Dalit community. Notably, the Patidars, another dominant community within the village, lack any representation in the panchayat committee, and they seek representation,” he said.

He said that, unlike many other communities, the Dalit community follows burial practices for their deceased, and this had turned into a notable point of dispute with the Patels, who raised objections about the location where the burials were conducted. The government has in principle identified land near Dalod for the scheduled caste community to carry out the final rites, Vasava said.

Kanu Sunesara, 44, convenor of the Dalit Adhikar Manch said that in many villages in Mandal-Viramgam area of Ahmedabad district, the Dalit community faces discrimination from the upper caste.

“In many villages, people from the Scheduled Caste (SC) community are not allowed to enter temples or participate in Navratri festivals. There are schools where the Dalit children are served meals separately. Even in some of the gram panchayats the Dalit members are served tea in separate cups,” said Sunesara.

In the nearby Trent village of Mandal taluka, four barber shops refused haircut to members of the Dalit community.

“A few years ago, some youth and activists decided to take up the issue with the block panchayat. The government authorities gave them a choice – to offer their services to everyone without discrimination or shut down their shops. The shop owners feared backlash from the dominant upper caste at Trent and decided to close their shops. Today those four shop owners operate from their homes, giving services only to the upper caste,” said a villager who did not wish to be named.

In yet another case of discrimination, in Geetapur village of Detroj taluka, five families have been living on the outskirts without electricity and water connection for the last ten years. The village is dominated by Patidars who live a little away from the Scheduled Caste community. The reason for this is that the village gram panchayat, which is represented by the Patidars, do not recognise these families as residents of Geetapur.

Reviben Parmar, 55, said, “Earlier Bhagapura and Geetapura were in one gram panchayat. We lived in Bhagapura earlier and at the time the two panchayats were being separated a resolution was passed, according to which we would become residents of Geetapura. But now we are not being accepted here.”

“In 2018, the Dalit families sat on a protest for 21 days at the Mamlatdar office. The Patidars from the village also sat on a Dharna against them,” said Parmar, while recalling the events. “A settlement was reached and the Patidars promised to build proper houses a little away from this village. But nothing has happened so far,” she added.

Vishnu Patel, sarpanch of Geetapura, said, “There was no discrimination, and the Dalits had encroached village land. They have their farms where they used to stay earlier. I have become a sarpanch recently and do not know the matter in too much detail. What I know is that the villagers have approached the Gujarat high court to evacuate them from the encroached land.”

Kiritbhai Rathod, a Dalit activist with the Navsarjan Trust said till the time the matter is settled as to who is the rightful owner of the land, these families should be given basic amenities. “Their request for water and electricity are also being turned down by the respective authorities. They live in darkness at night. They are forced to go to other villages to fetch water or recharge phones. Their children don’t go to school. These families have Aadhaar and election cards with Geetapur as the address, but they do not have a ration card. Isn’t that worrying?” he said.

Government data on offences registered under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 reveals a troubling trend of violence and discrimination against Dalits in Gujarat.

Between 2001 and 2015, the reported cases of crimes against Dalits in Gujarat exhibited a fluctuating pattern, ranging from 897 cases in 2003 to a peak of 1,165 cases in 2008. Overall, there was a slight increase in the total number of cases during this period, starting at 1,033 in 2001 and going up to 1,052 by 2015 in this period.

In contrast, from 2016, the year marked by the Una Dalit flogging incident, to 2022, the reported cases displayed a more consistent upward trajectory. With 1,355 cases in 2016, the numbers increased to a peak of 1,544 cases in 2018. There was a subsequent decrease to 1,485 cases in 2019, followed by a further drop to 1,370 in 2020. In 2021, reported cases decreased further to 1,298, before witnessing an increase again to 1,425 cases in 2022.

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